Over the holiday break, I decided to take on a personal challenge: play five roleplaying games that I’d never played in as many days. I played some new games, some experimental games, and some old classics. What follows are the results of that experiment, with my own idiosyncratic takes on each system and session, including some pros and cons.
Which of the following games have you played? And what learning experiences have you had from cramming new systems?
(By way of a quick disclaimer, note that all of my criticisms are predicated on a single adventure, and could very easily change if I played more of the respective system.)
We started out on Friday, with Matt running a HeroQuest: Glorantha adventure, “Mother of Monsters,” a review of which we published last week.
While I definitely had fun with HeroQuest, I think that my expectations were too high coming in. I’ve heard about the Glorantha setting over the years, and was looking forward to seeing that world. Up front, I’ll say that I really like HeroQuest’s adjectival system. For those of you that don’t know, character creation involves a few choices–where you’re from, some magical runes you’re associated with, your occupation–but from there you can define your character with just about any adjective or phrase you can come up with. For example, I played Erié, a quick-witted horse tamer, who was deft with a spear, had a horse who always came to call, and was socially awkward. I like the granular detail involved in character creation, and how these descriptions got pulled into the dice mechanics.
That said, it often felt like I was just hunting for the right attribute to apply to the situation, and if there wasn’t one to be found I had a hard time contributing to the party. Additionally, HeroQuest relies on a “mastery” mechanic, too complex to explain here, and honestly more complex than I felt I had a good grasp on by the end of the session. I’m often not a fan of games where every roll is contested, as they are here, and thought that the levels of success described in the rulebook (across I-don’t-know-how-many charts) were too arcane to be practical. This was a clunky system, in my summation; but then, not everything can be as streamlined as BRP.
Of course, I did still have fun. While horror games are my mainstay, there’s often nothing as satisfying as killing some monsters and toppling fantasy governments with good friends.
Saturday was a great day. I wound up playing four games all told, starting off with this mega-classic game, the first edition of Traveller. Matt GMed again, and we played the first “situation” in The Kinunir collection, “The Scrap Heap.” I had a blast breaking into a salvage yard, killing guards, and barely surviving with my life. I’ve made Traveller characters before (though not played) and that process is always such fun, rolling on random tables, never telling what your character will look like when they emerge from the service, or even whether they’ll survive character generation.
It was a strange juxtaposition, playing HeroQuest Friday night and Traveller Saturday morning. For one, you would think that a game from 1977 that references charts in different books would be more arcane than a game from 2003, but there was both a charm and a hilarity around Traveller’s setup lacking from HeroQuest. There was always the expectation, in the spacefaring classic, that something randomly generated was just waiting around the corner to throw a wrench in all your immaculate plans. This level of indeterminacy (or at least, that’s how it felt) made the feeling of being a future space pirate all the more precarious.
Sidenote. While Traveller came out largely before cyberpunk became a fully recognized genre, I couldn’t help but imagine that world in neon color, cyborg implants, and megacorps waiting in deadspace to pirate the pirates. I would happily sit down to play more Traveller in the future, which just goes to show why some classics carry that status for a reason.
Saturday afternoon I went over to my good friend Noah’s house (yes, another one, we move in packs) to play some micro-RPGs. The “microgame,” even though I lack a good definition for it, remains one of my favorite genres of RPG, as I love seeing what people create while bound by numerous restrictions.
Always a two-player game, The Bite makes a hard turn from Traveller and HeroQuest, and is the first proper “horror” game on this list (although when a “pouncer” attacked us in Traveller it seemed horrific enough). Written by Dan Enders, The Bite situates two people in a room as hordes of the walking dead clamor to get in. A gun waits on the floor. After dealing out conversation cards to each player, players take turns asking questions and developing their character through their responses. With the way The Bite deals out its cards, there’s a one-in-three chance that one of the players will have “the bite” card, meaning that they have been bitten, and will, at some point, become a flesh-hungry monstrosity. Either player may reach for “the gun” card at any moment, and either destroy the gun, kill the other character, or kill themselves… The tension of the game comes less from the zombies outside than from the feeling of being trapped, the uncertainty about the other character in the room with you, and the gun waiting in arm’s reach.
The game is incredibly tense and psychological, using a simple mechanic to extraordinary effect. Noah and I played this game three or four times–it can be over quite quickly, or the tension can continue building for ages–and played around with the mechanics a bit. Something that’s easier to do with microgames, as the “balance” is often more tied to players than hard-coded into the system itself. I would recommend this to any fan of horror games, and it seems like an ideal convention pick-up option.
One of Graham Walmsley’s many productions, Cthulhu Dark recently had a very successful Kickstarter, but there remains a free version on the web, which is what we played. Cthulhu Dark has some of the simplest dice-rolling mechanics I’ve ever encountered. Insanity builds gradually, but inexorably, you always succeed on attempts, and the question is only how well you succeed–unless, suddenly, someone thinks it would be interesting for you to fail…
I played this with Noah right after The Bite. I GMed, improvising a scenario about an occult, insanity-inducing LP that turns up in a used record store, and a Deep One conspiracy in the police department. Noah played both and employee and the owner of the record store, and we had a hilarious time killing characters, watching the PCs trip while listening to the album, and generally fail at doing anything constructive.
Again, I’d recommend this to anyone who likes Mythos-flavored games, whether or not you’re comfortable improvising scenarios. The nature of the rules are such that you could easily adapt any pre-written scenario for their use, on the fly, with little-to-no prep work.
If you’ve never heard of Dr. Magnethands… well, just go read the PDF right quick (it’s free), I won’t go anywhere.
My main criticism with how this game session went down is mainly that we might not have drunk enough beforehand. Each player writes down a collection of silliness on scraps of paper, pours them into a basket, and then selects a few of those at random. These words, whatever they might be, form your character (who is a superhero, did I mention that?) and their powers. The GM uses the random detritus left in the basket to form a ridiculous, over-the-top story, ultimately concluding with the heroes facing off against the canonical villain, Dr. Magnethands. If I remember correctly (it’s hazy) I played a Russian, cyborg secret agent assigned to the United States to save President Obama.
We won by summoning the Death Star to destroy the moon, where Dr. Magnethands had hidden his evil base, leaving the Empire’s dread construction floating in Luna’s place. That’s no moon… Need I say more?
You’ll have noticed by now that I’ve already hit five (in two days, no less). A happy consequence of having good friends and a love for microgames. I wasn’t going to play a game on Sunday, since I knew that I would double-down, or more, on Saturday, but Noah convinced me that I should play something, you know, for honesty’s sake.
So Sunday morning I read through the basic rules of Sorcerer as quickly as I could, and in the afternoon I ran a nearly four-hour session, for just Noah and myself. Sorcerer has an important history to roleplaying games, coming out in 1996, and proving one of the heralds of the indie RPG renaissance (that I would argue we’re really only now stepping into). While it has its flaws–for instance, I’m uncertain how well it would run for a party of more players–it made for an incredible one-on-one game. And, I’m cautious to admit, this was one of my single best RPG sessions ever.
I think that this came about for a number of reasons. In brief, the idea behind Sorcerer is that the player characters summon and bind demons in order to gain power in the world, whatever “power” means to your character. If this sounds like a bad idea, you’re damn straight. Binding demons comes at a great cost, and the more demons you control, or the more powerful are the ones you summon, the more difficult they are to control, gleefully sewing chaos in the sorcerer’s life and through the world.
Additionally, the game generates its own narrative through character creation, both through a unique diagram of background characteristics and through a “Kicker” that upsets the balance of the character’s life, throwing them into the story. And, interestingly, the “kicker” falls to the player to describe, not the GM. The GM then presents “bangs,” which are moments of intrigue, mystery, violence, terror, etc., that the players have to respond to.
The story Noah and I told that afternoon was personal, tragic, horrific, and terrifying. I wish, honestly, that I had recorded the session for re-listening. A few things that happened in our session: Noah’s character, Kamal, did battle with another sorcerer; an old friend kidnapped Kamal’s child; Kamal bound a new demon named Gautier the Opportunist, an object demon trapped inside a pocket-watch; and, when told that binding demons is easier with a sacrifice, Kamal “sacrificed” his fidelity to his wife by sleeping with a succubus-like demon. This final incident, especially, was bone-chilling to witness in game, symbolizing Kamal’s increasing remove from humanity.
I can’t stop talking about this game, to pretty much anyone who will listen.
Monday night we switched GM roles, and Noah ran me and another good friend through a Martian adventure of giant robots, downed satellites, brotherly love, and megacorp machinations.
MechNoir, an expansion to TechNoir, adds options for mecha combat to the game. TechNoir itself is a game of cyberpunk, dystopian operations. Adding giant robots to the mix really changed the flavor of TechNoir, shifting the emphasis to wide-open terrain over the claustrophobic cities of most cyberpunk stories.
Once again, TechNoir relies on opposed rolls for everything, like HeroQuest, which I found unwieldy and labor intensive. (Then again, Sorcerer uses opposed rolls for rules resolution also, so maybe there’s something else in TechNoir and HeroQuest I’m keying off of.) On a positive note, the game uses a system of tags that make it really simple to visualize how interactions occur in the world. If my cybereye has the “detachable” tag, I can remove it to look around corners. Similarly, player characters can impose new tags on opponents (with successful rolls), like “broken leg” or “unconscious.” I think that the tag mechanics are really elegant, and made the world more evocative. I could foresee playing more of this system (either TechNoir in isolation or with the MechNoir expansion) and really falling in love with it.
The Quiet Year
My last game in this project was one that I’ve wanted to play for a long time, The Quiet Year, by Avery Alder. I first heard it played on that one podcast I wrote about, and thought it would make a fine conclusion to five days of character building and dice rolling.
For one, The Quiet Year uses no dice. In fact, I’m not sure it’s even technically a roleplaying game. Copy for the product calls it a “map game,” and indeed, over the course of the game, you and the other players draw a map of a city in a post-apocalyptic world, surviving on the fringes. The primary mechanic relies on drawing playing cards that correspond to choices the active player has to make, and questions they have to answer. As there are 52 weeks in a year, and 52 cards in a deck, The Quiet Year portrays a community’s growth in the face of coming winter, and worse.
Of course, with my friends, we wound up in a tropical version of London with radioactive capybaras and a caste system based on the number of limbs people still had. Then the city was destroyed by a volcano.
This is the kind of experimental roleplaying game whose design I find really inspirational. Privileging the community over individuals (though individuals do crop up in the story, their stories aren’t the focus) is the kind of social thinking we need in this increasing insular world, and we need more games like The Quiet Year.
If you’ve been counting, you know that I actually wound up playing eight games in five days, and all told I think that I learned a lot about game design in the process. I wound up playing a lot of one-on-one games, both because of system (The Bite) and circumstance (Sorcerer), and discovered that they can be both hilarious (in our likely idiosyncratic game of Cthulhu Dark) and grimdark in their intensity (Sorcerer, The Bite).
While HeroQuest and MechNoir had me down on constant opposed rolls (also similar camelCase title conventions, hmm…), Sorcerer seems to prove me wrong in that dislike. But then maybe it’s the exception that proves the rule. I found a new favorite, Sorcerer, and honestly didn’t have any truly negative experiences with any of these games, though I do think it would take sitting down to a campaign for me to really love HeroQuest.
The best part of this experiment, of course, was getting to play games with good friends. Across five days I played with 10 different people, introduced someone to roleplaying games for the first time, used Roll20 twice (which I had never used before), and was provided fodder for many, many more games in the future. All told, I’ve only spent a few hours with each of these games, and they all warrant much, much more time.
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